The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter


Called "the ancestor of all tales" by Murasaki Shikibu in the "The Picture Contest" (Eawase) chapter of The Tale of Genji, The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter (Taketori monogatari) is the oldest known monogatari in Japanese literature. Both the author and the precise date of composition are unknown, although the end of the ninth century is the most commonly accepted estimate for the time of authorship. The earliest extant manuscript copy dates from 1570.

Two categories of monogatari are considered representative of the genre through the middle of the Heian period (794-1185): tsukuri monogatari (invented tales) and uta monogatari (poem tales). The former category refers to extended works of prose fiction, while the latter refers to works comprising relatively independent episodes focused on providing narrative contexts for 31-syllable tanka. The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter comes under the tsukuri monogatari classification.

What, precisely, makes The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter -- which contains its share of tanka -- an "invented" tale? One answer can be found in its basic three-part organization. The opening section describes the discovery and upbringing of the main character, Nayotake no Kaguyahime (Radiant Princess of the Pliant Bamboo). This section incorporates folktale or fairytale motifs common in many parts of the world, including the motif of miraculous birth, the motif of a supernatural being taking human form, the motif of acquiring great wealth, and the motif of tasking suitors in marriage with impossible quests. Conventional, therefore, in many respects, this section also shifts the reader's attention away from the old bamboo cutter and toward Kaguyahime as the tale's protagonist. The title may be The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, in other words, but the story really comes to center on Kaguyahime.

The second part of the tale concerns the quests undertaken by Kaguyahime's five suitors. That their number is five rather than the "magical" number three so often repeated in the tale (Kaguyahime is three sun in height, she grows to be an adult in three months, her naming ceremony is marked by a three-day celebration; she receives her name from a diviner whose name contains the Chinese character for "three") suggests a willingness on the part of the narrator to deviate from standard narrative patterns. Each of the five episodes relating the suitors' quests ends with a folk etymology -- suggesting a basis in oral tradition -- but the adventures themselves are narrated with an attention to detail and an awareness of irony that adds elements of satire and even political commentary, revealing a relatively sophisticated narrative voice. For example, the second suitor, Prince Kuramochi, is shown to be a guileful egoist whose nefarious scheme to deceive Kaguyahime and the old bamboo cutter culminates in a fit of violence that perfectly encapsulates his character. Kuramochi has even been identified with the historical personage Fujiwara no Fuhito (659-720), so that this section can be seen as critical of one of early Japan's most powerful families.

The third section of the tale concerns a final suitor for Kaguyahime's favor, the emperor himself. Fairytales based on the supernatural-wife-human-husband motif typically involve a marriage, the revelation of the woman's true nature, and the woman's return to the supernatural sphere because her true identity has been exposed (or she learns that her husband has known of it all along). There is no such marriage in The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter. Kaguyahime eludes even the determined pursuit of the emperor and returns to her birthplace, the moon, completely unsullied, having expiated whatever minor infraction had caused her to be exiled in the first place. The supernatural and the human are apparently destined never to intermingle. So although Kaguyahime laments her departure and leaves behind keepsakes for her step-parents and the emperor -- letters for both and a vial of the elixir of eternal life for the emperor -- once she dons the feathered robe appropriate to her celestial status, she no longer has any concern for the merely human. That is not to say she has not developed: besides her acknowledgment of the value of filial and romantic love (at least at the human level), she has indeed matured to the extent that she is now ready to assume her proper station in the extraterrestrial heirarchy. Instead of meekly following the instructions of the chief messenger, for instance, she requires that he wait while she calmly composes her final letters. The impression received is not unlike that received at the end of the film Roman Holiday when Princess Ann, after her rebellious fling with reporter Joe Bradley, resumes her assigned role as a royal princess, but with a new air of authority that demonstrates an awareness of her foreordained status.

Now, Helen McCullough, in her Classical Japanese Prose: An Anthology (Stanford UP, 1990), provides a wholly appropriate series of excerpts to illustrate this three-part organization. However, McCullough truncates the last excerpt just before the tale reaches its conclusion. It is a puzzling decision. The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter actually ends with the emperor directing his men to take the keepsakes left for him by Kaguyahime to the summit of Mount Fuji and burn them. The incident serves to provide a folk etymology for the name "Fuji," which said to derive from the abundance (fu) of warriors (shi) delegated to carry out the emperor's command. In addition, the burning of the keepsakes is held to account for the smoke that continues to rise from Mount Fuji's peak.

Perhaps this reversion to conventional folk narrative is why McCullough decided to omit the incident: she may have regarded Kaguyahime's ascension to the moon as the end of the central plot line. But not only is the incident itself short enough to be easily accommodated, it includes the expected formulaic ending McCullough mentions in her introduction (to zo iitsutaetaru; "thus has the story been handed down") and also resolves the important question of just what happens to the elixir of eternal life Kaguyahama has left behind for the emperor. The emperor, it would appear, has decided that eternal life in a world without Kaguyahime is simply not worth it. The reader is thus left to wonder whether the outcome is intended to demonstrate a sense of resigned melancholy or, to the contrary, an admirable attitude of self-abnegation. Japanese critics tend toward the latter interpretation -- we in this world can only make do with what we have -- but perhaps the hint of thematic ambivalence can also be considered evidence of the kind of shaping impulse one would expect to find in a tsukuri monogatari. In any case, I do not think the ending should have been omitted.


The opening lines of The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter


At a time now past, there was an old man who used to go out into the fields and mountains to cut bamboo, which he would make into all manner of things. The name of this old man was Sanuki no Miyakko.

Once, he noticed something shining at the foot of one of the stalks of bamboo. Thinking it odd, he went closer and saw a light coming from within. When he looked, he discovered a little girl about three inches high sitting prettily inside. The old man said, "Because I found her here among the bamboo I see each morning and each evening, there can be no doubt she was meant to be my child." Cradling her carefully in his hands, he took her home, where he gave her to the old woman who was his wife to raise.

The child's beauty was beyond compare. Since she was so young, the old couple kept her inside a basket while she grew.